Link Exchange (also known as reciprocal links) is probably one of the most contentious issues in the SEO world. The sensitivity of this issue can be gauged by the fact that even though Google webmaster tool terms excessive link exchange as a bad thing, reciprocal links is still widely practiced across the SEO industry. This clear rebellion against Google’s guidelines clarifies defies logic, since it clearly invites the risk of penalties eventually resulting in massive drop in search ranking.

Before demystifying this strange behavior, we’d like to look into basic definition of link exchange or when is any act termed as link exchange practice.

What really is link exchange?  

As is evident from the name, link exchange simply means I’ll link you and you’ll link me back. As and when this link exchange takes place by the virtue of reciprocation, the action is termed as ‘link exchange. The process of link exchange can be started or initiated through several avenues, with e-mail being the most popular medium wherein the owners of two websites discuss about the potential of linking back to each other’s website. However, over the years social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have emerged as breeding ground for link exchanges.  

However, a link exchange doesn’t necessarily have to be voluntary in nature. It can also be done involuntarily. For instance, you accidentally came to know that a relatively well known website has linked to your website and as a goodwill gesture your website also reciprocates by linking back to the same website.

In this case, though links have been swapped without any communication taking place between respective website owners, this still qualifies as a link exchange in the eyes of Google.     

Demystifying Google’s policy on link exchange

Finally we arrive at the demystifying part. Google’s policy is quite unambiguous about link exchange practices, with the search engine giant clearly stating it is against ‘excessive link usage.’ Most professionals in the SEO & digital marketing industry have inferred the term ‘excessive link usage’ quite literally and therefore justify their moderate affiliation towards link exchange practices. Based on my exhaustive experience in the SEO industry, I can personally vouch that these professionals are absolutely right in exercising their moderate affiliation towards link exchange schemes. This is to say that Google is fine with moderate use of link exchange.

But then the question arises what really qualifies as excessive and when does it become clear that they are dangerously lurking near the threshold. There is no clear cut answer to this and SEO professionals have to take decisive decision based on their own individual calling, since they are fully aware to what extend they have exploited link exchange for fetching backlinks. If they have indeed over exploited it then there is an urgent need to stop abusing the practice as soon as possible.

SEO and digital marketing professionals also need to checkout respective website’s outbound and backlink profiles to fully ascertain that link exchange has been fully abused or not. For instance, a website has nearly 500 backlinks and a thorough link analysis exercise proves that out of 500 backlinks nearly 40% have been earned through link exchange program then this is a clear case of being lurking in the danger zone. On the contrary, out of 500 backlinks only 8-10% links have been earned through link exchange program then it can be confidently said that the site is in the safe zone.

It is no brainer that for Google 40% (as opposed to only 8-10%) links earned through link exchange is most likely to qualify as a black hat techquine.

In the next section, we’ll be looking into when you should be saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to link exchange opportunities. But before going ahead, I would like to make it amply clear that newly launched sites and sites with low visibility in search engine ranking are more likely to resort to link exchange schemes.  This is not to say that well established sites or sites with high visibility in search ranking never resort to link exchange programs. 

When to say ‘No’ to link exchange program

  • The website is not even scantly related to your site’s niche. For example, the concerned website is about automobiles and bikes while your website is purely about SEO & digital marketing. It must be remembered that Google attaches lot of importance to relevancy factor while indexing your backlink profile and therefore too many non-relevant sites can result in drop in ranking.
  • When a website has way too many outbound links, which is actually not a good thing from SEO perspective. Too many outbound links strongly indicates that the website has already over-abused link exchange schemes and may have been even penalized by Google.  
  • When the site looks downright tacky and shambolic. The site is very badly designed and doesn’t even have a proper navigation. It feels like either the site was only launched yesterday or the concerned owner is simply not serious about operating his website. 
  • When a website has too much of low quality content – has too many grammatical mistakes and most of the content appears to be completely out of context.               

When to say ‘Yes’ to link exchange program

  • When the website is related to your site’s niche and also boosts decent-to-high domain authority. 
  • When website boosts lot of high quality content (content is related to your site’s niche) and the website overall looks immensely promising, even though it may currently boost low domain authority.
  • Website may not be exactly related to your site’s niche but both are bounded by common high ranking keywords. More importantly, the website also passes the litmus test of high quality content.        

Conclusion: when it comes to link exchange,white and black hat techniques are divided by relatively thin line. Not seizing enough link exchange opportunities may cost you some worthy backlinks and overexploiting it may invite Google penalties. Therefore, practicing certain degree of moderation is always advisable when indulging in link exchange schemes.  Lastly, notwithstanding all the rumors there is still no conclusive evidence that backlinks acquired through link exchange (as opposed to single or one sided links) pass less link juice. Nonetheless, you’re website’s backlink profile should always be heavily tilted towards single or one sided links.                    

Girish Shetti

Girish Shetti is a veteran in content marketing. His strength lies in writing high-quality SEO friendly content and  procuring backlinks that help in increasing the online visibility of the website...


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